Raiders of a cruel lot

Alis­tair Mof­fat re­fuses to fly the flag for the Border reivers, says Rose­mary Gor­ing

The Herald - Arts - - Books - THEREIVERS Alis­tair Mof­fat Bir­linn £16.99

The per­pet­ual ro­mance at­tached to the Scot­tish Borders was fos­tered not only by Wal­ter Scott’s stir­ring his­tor­i­cal nov­els, but by a na­tional sense of misty-eyed pa­tri­o­tism. This was trig­gered partly by the beauty and mys­tery of the re­gion, and partly by the stag­ger­ingly brave and bloody-minded at­ti­tude of the Border­ers who, for those tucked safely in their cen­tral-belt homes and never called upon to raise as much as a shout, epit­o­mised the per­son­al­ity of the an­cient noble Scot they as­pired to.

But the re­al­ity of what went on in the Borders was far from pretty. For over a hun­dred years – from the late 15th cen­tury to the union of crowns in 1603 – this neck of land was rav­aged, raped and raided, from small-scale thefts and har­ry­ing to wide­spread mur­der and loot­ing. Much of the dam­age was in­flicted by pass­ing Scot­tish and English armies. Yet al­most as much may­hem was wrought by the Border­ers them­selves, in the form of fiercely crim­i­nal fam­i­lies who cre­ated a cli­mate of ut­ter law­less­ness where no neigh­bour’s prop­erty was safe and no

Ial­le­giances mat­tered – ex­cept those of kin. And even those could be bro­ken.

The worst pe­riod be­gan in the 1540s with the Rough Woo­ing, when Henry VIII tried to force Scot­land into an al­liance through mar­riage. But while this po­lit­i­cal strong-arm­ing cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion lit­tle short of a night­mare for the Border­ers, Alis­tair Mof­fat shows how there were few nights in that cen­tury when a farmer, or his live­stock, could sleep easy. Border folk were rightly more afraid of other Border­ers than of any king’s men. In the sec­ond half of the 16th cen­tury, reiv­ing was at its very worst. As­tutely, Mof­fat links this surge with the poor cli­mate in those decades, when crops failed and the peo­ple were poorer than ever. Clearly there was a ma­cho thrill for those in­volved in the “rid­ing”, but eco­nomic ne­ces­sity was a root cause. n ge­o­graphic terms, the Borders are like the restau­rant ta­ble squeezed be­tween the kitchen and the toi­lets. The doors were al­ways swing­ing open, bash­ing them on the back of the head, with a con­stant stream of peo­ple rush­ing to and fro around them. Mof­fat gives a vivid over­view of the way the pol­i­tics of the time im­pinged upon the Borders, show­ing how re­morse­lessly tram­pled and scorched the re­gion was as blows were struck and armies tram­pled through. How­ever mean and cruel many of the reivers un­doubt­edly were, it is im­pos­si­ble not to feel some sym­pa­thy for their sit­u­a­tion. But it was an age of vi­o­lent ex­tremes, when hang­ings, be­head­ings and burn­ings were com­mon, and the reivers were men of their times.

Fam­i­lies such as the Arm­strongs, Kerrs, Gra­hams and Humes, to name but a few, ter­rorised the Border marches. While Mof­fat im­plic­itly ap­plauds their en­ergy and their macabre hu­mour, he makes no ex­cuse for their cru­elty, and is at pains to make us com­pre­hend how un­pleas­ant life must have been for those whose an­i­mals, homes and fam­i­lies fell vic­tim to th­ese ban­dits.

If the kings on both sides of the border could do noth­ing to quell them, how much more vul­ner­a­ble was an un­pro­tected farmer or vil­lager.

Writ­ten, un­der­stand­ably, from a Scot­tish per­spec­tive, The Reivers of­fers a spir­ited and colour­ful ac­count of a cen­tury of das­tardly but not al­ways in­de­fen­si­ble be­hav­iour. On some lev­els it can­not ri­val Ge­orge MacDon­ald Fraser’s The Steel Bon­nets, a mas­terly ac­count of the Border


Alis­tair Mof­fat’s ef­fort does not ro­man­ti­cise the reivers’ deeds

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